Humans and the Humanites

An instructor and a student share lessons they learned from a class in which university students taught Russian literature at a juvenile correctional facility.
March 14, 2011

An Instructor’s View – Andrew D. Kaufman

From the moment the guard at Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center escorted my students and me into the multi-purpose room, where a group of incarcerated adolescents, aged 16-20, in maroon jumpsuits awaited us, we knew that this was not going to be Russian literature class as usual.

To begin with, I wasn’t doing the teaching. My students were.

And by teaching I don’t mean guiding these residents through brilliant analyses of narrative strategies in Dostoevsky, or how mimetic desire works in Tolstoy. No, students in this academic community engagement course, “Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Community Leadership,” piloted in 2009, have a different task: to promote authentic conversation about major life questions raised by short classics of Russian literature: What makes for a “successful” life? How I can be true to myself? What is my responsibility to others? Given that I will die, how should I live?

These are the sorts of questions, of course, that many academic humanists these days consider to be too personal, quaint, or irrelevant to take seriously in their classrooms, let alone their scholarship. Over 20 years ago, in 1988, a National Endowment for the Humanities report was already sounding an alarm that the humanities were veering away from pursuing questions of human purpose and meaning in favor of mind-numbing abstraction and captious analytical exercises.

More recently, Martha Nussbaum, Anthony Kronman, and Mark Edmundson, among others, have voiced eloquent fresh concern about this continuing trend. Still, relatively few scholars have developed concrete methods for addressing this ongoing problem in the classroom itself. My colleagues and I believe that “Books Behind Bars” offers one successful model for doing just that.

In this course pairs of University of Virginia students lead weekly discussions with small groups of residents at either a juvenile treatment or a correctional center. Before each meeting, students write in their journals about which characters and topics they think will resonate with the adolescents. Afterward, they discuss how their interactions with the residents affected their earlier ideas, not only about literature, but about juvenile offenders, about themselves, and about what it means to read and study literature in a community context. At the end of the semester they write a reflective essay describing their intellectual, creative, and emotional journey throughout the course.

"For once, I was actually able to take literature and apply it to a situation," wrote one student, an English major, in her final essay. "I had almost forgotten that was possible." Another reflected: "I do think literature can change people and that words hold a tremendous, awe-inspiring power. Perhaps this is the most serious and intense transformation I’ve experienced in this class." In anonymous end of semester evaluations students described the course as "powerful," "transformative," "eye-opening," "humbling" and "profound."

The “Books Behind Bars” course appears to be having an equally strong impact on the residents, as well. When one resident found out that she was reading the same books college students study in their classes, her face lit up with pride. When asked to describe the most important life lesson they learned from Russian literature, participants at Jefferson Trail Treatment Center for Children said things like “Love life,” “Be a good person,” and “Never give up on your dreams.” After the semester was over three musically talented residents voluntarily got together to work on a rock rendition of their favorite Russian short stories.

Encouraged by the success of the pilot, a team of faculty from three different schools at UVa is now assessing the impact of "Books Behind Bars" more closely. This study is being conducted through Youth-Nex, the UVa Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. One hypothesis is that UVa students grow in this class because they are asked to move outside of their intellectual and personal comfort zones.

Smart English majors familiar with the latest critical lingo quickly discover that incarcerated adolescents are not so interested in Derrida’s theories about identity, meaning, and power. These are youth, after all, with long histories of economic disadvantage, social delinquency, mental illness, and dysfunctional or nonexistent families, and they live in a secure facility. In such an environment discussions about freedom and moral responsibility, nature versus nurture, and social alienation, become very concrete very quickly.

To bring alive the themes of Mikhail Lermontov’s poem, “Homeland,” for instance, a pair of students gave residents cardboard paper, pencils, and markers, and asked them to create their personal vision of “home.” While some residents created pictures of calm lakes and soaring birds, one 16-year old represented her home as a large black space with a tiny white opening in the middle. My students were astonished to learn that she had lost both parents by the age of 8 and spent most of her teens in juvenile treatment centers, and that a concept as familiar to them as "home" could have such different associations for an adolescent growing up in extreme circumstances.

This is just the sort of discovery, in turn, that deepens students’ understanding of the literature itself. Russian writers, who knew firsthand what it means to lose one’s freedom, to be an outsider, to search for an ideal in a broken world, become strikingly relevant.

And relevance is what college students find missing today from too many of their literature classes. What Hannah, an English major at UVa who took the pilot run of "Books Behind Bars," writes below reinforces my own belief that academic community engagement might be a solution to the current crisis in the humanities. Her thoughts also reflect a hunger I see among many students for a humanities education that promises more than the rarefied parsing (or pummeling) of texts by a small cadre of trained specialists.

For Hannah and other students of "Books Behind Bars" the humanities become about actual human beings — university students, incarcerated youth, great writers, and their characters, confronting life’s biggest questions and exploring their common humanity across a great social, economic, and cultural divide.

A Student’s View – Hannah Ehrlinspiel

Throughout my four years at UVa, I’ve noticed that most of my fellow students even slightly interested in reading usually fall into one of two camps: those who believe literature has the power to change your life, and those who, well, don’t. When I first signed up for "Books Behind Bars," I considered myself a member of the former group — but just barely. That is, I thought literature might have the power to change my life, but I wasn’t so sure about everybody else’s.

What’s more, I was a little skeptical of a class that purported to structure itself on a peer-peer model of teaching. The typical teacher-student paradigm was just something I’d grown accustomed to in the world of undergraduate literary studies, and it was the one I assumed I’d put into practice when interacting with the residents.

But not only did the residents in "Books Behind Bars" turn out to be my equals in picking out moments of personal relevance in the texts, they also taught me an invaluable lesson: that the questions raised by great literature are actually the most important questions raised by life itself. Surprisingly, I had never really gotten that from my other classes.

One of the first things that struck me was that the word "discussion" was not a mere code word for "impress the teacher with my incredible wit." The main difference in this class is that we weren’t speaking for ourselves only. We were helping others to speak for themselves — others who truly depended on us and the work we were doing. If I didn’t prepare adequately for class, I would not only let myself and my classmates down. I would also betray the trust and rapport I was hoping to build with the residents.

And rapport was critical. During our introductions, I observed that the two adolescents (John and Claire) my partner and I were working with would only really answer anything (even such banalities as, "Oh, what kind of dog do you have?") if I, too, shared something personal and anecdotal. This democratization of introductions forced me to deconstruct the teacher-student binary I’d built in my head.

I saw that I wouldn’t be allowed any insight into their thoughts if I didn’t make myself vulnerable, as well, which was difficult for me at first because real, personal relevance and human connection had often been discouraged in my other classes. Yet without that authenticity discussions would have gone nowhere.

They almost did go nowhere when I started off thinking I’d ask them for their thoughts on "the structural anachronism of narrative collapse" in Nikolai Gogol’s "The Overcoat." However, such a question would have been utterly ludicrous and totally ineffective. I had to learn to ask questions not just that sounded smart, but ones that really mattered to these kids — and to me: "Do you feel worse for Ivan or Akaky? Did one deserve to die more than the other?" As simple as these questions appeared, they were, surprisingly, the most difficult to answer, and the very ones that generated the most discussion with the residents.

I learned something important about the residents, too. Surrounded by such sensational images as those seen on "Law & Order" and "Maury," it seems that people often dismiss youth in treatment and correctional centers as mere "types." Far from a bunch of rag-tag ruffians and bloodthirsty cutthroats, however, these adolescents were highly feeling, emotive, complex, and even humorous. Above all, they had a huge capacity for sympathy — and it surfaced in their interactions with the texts.

During the discussion of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” John was put into the position of Ivan’s son and asked to describe his father in one word. “Kindhearted,” he said. “If I had to describe my dad in one word, it would be kindhearted.” In previous discussions it had come out that John’s father had been abusive towards him, so I was anticipating some real vehemence directed toward Ivan (who more or less completely ignores his son throughout the entire story).

John’s reaction floored me. How was this boy, abused by his father and condemned to institutionalization for a large part of his life, able to judge another with such purity of intention, with such sympathy? I realized in that moment that incarceration may be a term to describe the residents’ concrete daily lives, but amazingly, they also possess a moral imagination which allows them to rise above their circumstances and bestow upon others far more charitable and nuanced judgments than they themselves have received.

For years I had always been taught that literature was something you had to stab at, to pick through until it gave up its most complex secrets. "Books Behind Bars," however, taught me to appreciate simplicity, to yield to the most basic stirrings of emotion caused by a genuine smile or by a beautiful simile. As a result, I got much closer to the texts than ever before, and became genuinely interested in what each work really means.

But perhaps the biggest lesson I learned is that if you touch one life anywhere, you’ve touched lives everywhere. And isn’t that what reading literature is all about?


Andrew D. Kaufman is lecturer and Academic Community Engagement Faculty Fellow in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and research affiliate in Youth-Nex, the UVa Center to Promote Effective Youth Development at the University of Virginia. Hannah Ehrlinspiel is an English major, Class of 2011, at the University of Virginia.


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